How this city woman ended up shoveling manure and birthing sheep is still a mystery to me. I have a hunch it’s one of those “nevers” I can’t seem to stop swearing to. You know what I mean. “I will NEVER…” [insert whatever you will never do, accept, have, want].
At any rate, back in the early 90s I found myself the surprised owner of a batch of turkey chicks. Things were progressing nicely. The birds were growing. Visions of paying a few bills – like the cost of the chicks, their feed, and all the associated expenses – were calming my normal anxiety about the economics of farming.
Then one day I came out to find the whole flock of half-grown birds gathered around one poor tom (the male of the species), pecking furiously at his bloody tail. I went ballistic. I’ve never forgotten the surprising turn of events. Here’s how I described it in an e-mail to a friend.
I sang to the turkeys this morning, as I checked their feed and water and added fresh hay to their litter. The gentle birds gathered around, eyeing me curiously and chirruping softly. They walked in a slow circle, observing me from every angle. People have often told us that turkeys are ill tempered. Not this flock. They climbed all over my lap when they were younger and still lumber over when I come into the pen.
Last Monday I would have gladly slaughtered the whole flock of them. I checked them in the afternoon and found several of them pecking away at a bleeding tom. As blood dripped steadily from his tail, they pecked at the wound. I feared they would kill him and was furious. I stood in the middle of the flock and shouted at them. Called them cannibals. Threatened to wring all their necks…and was grateful no one was around to hear my tantrum.
The victim stood in dumb silence, not even trying to move away, not even clearly aware he was being hurt. I tried to herd him into an enclosure where we have occasionally isolated a sick bird. It was clean and ready for the next sufferer. He wanted none of it. He began breathing heavily, running and flying to get away from me, stressing the rest of the birds with his fear. It took me a good quarter of an hour to finally get him to safety. I brought him feed and water and built a barricade all along the fence, to keep the others from pecking him. He wanted out. Better the pecking than the isolation. But I knew they would peck him until he bled to death so made sure he was safe and then left, upset with the scene, the distress, my own reaction.
For the next two days the turkeys all gathered by the fence in solidarity with their imprisoned comrade. He calmed enough to eat a little and allow his tail to heal, but there was no real peace in the turkey barn. He was upset to be away from the others. They were upset by his distress.
Yesterday morning I went into the barn and found they had knocked down the barricades. Somehow they had managed to unhook the gate, though the hook is chest high for me. They had pushed open the gate and freed the tom. None of them had been caught under a falling barricade. The tom had recovered enough that I found him squaring off with another male, engaged in the kind of posturing which would lead to breeding rights if they weren’t all destined for the dinner table.
I was awestruck and humbled. These white turkeys have been artificially bred so long that the intelligence has been bred right out of them. Or so I thought. Yet they had freed one of their own, finding no peace until they did so. Except for the posturing of the two toms, the flock was quieter than it had been in two days.
Later in the day I learned from a woman who used to farm in Alberta that turkeys peck at anything red. She figures the tom probably injured himself, and the others were just pecking at the red blood. Since we haven’t had trouble with cannibalism before, she may be right. Whatever the case, the turkey liberation front taught me new respect for the birds.